Pandora Report: 10.23.2020

Tomorrow is World Polio Day! In 1988, the World Health Assembly pledged to prioritize polio eradication, and the virus was still present in 125 countries. By 2017, only 3 countries were reporting cases of wild poliovirus. Today, the virus has been reduced to only one type and comprehensive eradication is within reach. Also, Happy 25th Anniversary to CRDF Global! This weekend marks the first games for the Big 10. How will this impact rising case numbers in the Big 10 region? The Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive identified 148 key personnel and 59 facilities belonging to Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC).

In Memoriam: Dennis M. Gormley

We are very sad to announce the passing of Dennis M. Gormley, nonproliferation expert and husband of Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley.  The Biodefense Program offers its deepest condolences to Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, where Dennis worked for several years, issued this in memoriam:

“It is with great sadness that the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) notes the passing of our long-time colleague and friend, Dennis M. Gormley. A recognized expert on arms control and weapons of mass destruction proliferation—and a leading specialist in particular on cruise missile proliferation—Mr. Gormley served as CNS Senior Fellow during the early 2000s, based in the Center’s Washington, DC, office. Among Dennis’s important contributions to the nonproliferation field are Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Praeger, 2008) and A Low Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (National Defense University, 2014, with Andrew S. Erickson and Jingdong Yuan). His articles have appeared in numerous scholarly publications, including the CNS peer-reviewed journal, the Nonproliferation Review. We extend our sincere condolences to Dennis’s wife, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, another former member of the CNS family.”

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Complex Revealed

On 19 October, the Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive released a major report on Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the organization responsible for Syria’s chemical weapon and ballistic missile programs. The report, based on a two -year investigation of information provided by Syrian defectors and open sources, identifies 148 key personnel and 59 facilities belonging to the SSRC. According to the report, Institute 3000 was responsible for developing Syria’s chemical weapons and Branch 450 was responsible for protecting and transporting these weapons and preparing them for use. Branch 410 of Institute 2000 and Branch 797 of Institute 4000 produced chlorine barrel bombs that were used extensively throughout the Syrian civil war. In April, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) identified the Syrian Arab Air Force as being responsible for a chlorine barrel bomb attack against a hospital in Ltamenah in March 2017. Institute 4000 was also responsible for developing the short-range rockets filled with sarin that were used in East Ghouta in August 2013. The role of the Assad regime in conducting the East Ghouta attack and the April 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun were the subject of separate studies by Open Society Justice Initiative, Syrian Archive, and Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression which were sent to the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office in early October for investigation as international war crimes. Biodefense program director Professor Gregory Koblentz assisted the Open Society Justice Initiative in the preparation of these reports as a pro bono consultant. 

The release of these reports is incredibly timely in the wake of Syria’s refusal to comply with a deadline issued by the OPCW’s Executive Council that Syria comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention and declare all of its chemical weapons and production facilities by early October. On 14 October, the Director-General of the OPCW informed states parties that Syria had not provided any additional information as required. Syria’s non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention will be addressed at the Conference of States Parties which will take place on November 30-December 4, 2020 at the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. 

CRDF Global is Celebrating 25 Years of Safety, Security, and Sustainability

2020 marks the 25th year of CRDF Global’s commitment to promoting global security and stability! CRDF Global is an independent nonprofit organization that provides flexible logistical support, program design and management, and strategic capacity building programs in the areas of higher education, CBRNE security and nonproliferation, border security, cybersecurity, global health, technology entrepreneurship, and international professional exchanges. Earlier this month, CRDF global was awarded two subcontracts from Leidos in support of the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). CRDF Global will be supporting the DTRA-BTRP mission of facilitating the security, detection, and surveillance of diseases caused by exceptionally dangerous pathogens. In the Philippines and Jordan, the organization will mentor and train researchers at government agencies and academic institutions in writing competitive research proposals for international funding and technical articles suitable for submission to peer-reviewed publications.

Trump Isn’t Contagious Now. But His Administration Will Still Get People Sick.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, Term Assistant Professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program and infection prevention expert, recently wrote an article for the Washington Post about Trump’s recent rallies demonstrating his dismissive approach to the ongoing pandemic. Though the US has surpassed 8 million cases of COVID-19, Trump continues to espouse that the pandemic is NBD and that the disease “affects virtually nobody.” On 2 October, both Trump and the First Lady tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a short hospitalization for him. Trump’s first post-hospital rally was held 12 October, merely one week after his diagnosis, an event that likely exposed many of his own supporters to the virus. Though Trump ignored the safety of our population, Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate did not: she cancelled campaign events due to a staffer and an airline attendant with whom she was in close contact testing positive for COVID-19. Read Popescu’s article here.

Call to Action: CSIS-LSHTM High-Level Panel on Vaccine Confidence and Misinformation

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) convened the High-Level Panel on Vaccine Confidence and Misinformation. The Panel shared a set of five recommendations for US leadership:

  1. The rapid launch of an independent panel on vaccines and misinformation to stimulate an updated national conversation and carry out a swift assessment of the decline in public trust and confidence in vaccines, public authorities, and science, as well as the root causes of these losses and the implications therein
  2. The public sector should guide innovations for reaching diverse and underserved populations with vaccines and other health and social services support
  3. Mainstream traditional and digital media outlets should commit publicly and voluntarily to improving the information climate related to vaccines
  4. Leaders in the critical social and economic sectors should engage in greater activism
  5. The administration should create a new capacity within the National Security Council (NSC) directorate that facilitates collaboration across agencies and sectors to address global health security and biodefense

Read the full CSIS-LSHTM Call to Action here.

Winners of NTI’s 2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity in GHSA Competition Announced

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security Network announced the winners of the fourth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition, at which Dr. Gregory Koblentz, the Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was a judge. The winning team included Jonas Sandbrink, a medical student at the University of Oxford; Joshua Monrad, a master’s candidate in health policy, planning, and financing at the University of London (LSHTM, LSE); and Sriharshita Musunuri, a chemistry and computer science undergraduate student at Stanford University. These three students developed a paper, “Widening the Framework for Regulation of Dual-Use Research in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which argues that governments and research entities need to take special steps to reduce the possibility of dual-use research that can be exploited during a pandemic when the scientific community is focusing on vital research to advance vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The winning authors recommend expanding the definition of dual-use research of concern, strengthening regulatory frameworks for dual-use research oversight, and developing robust mechanisms beyond policymaking to reinforce dual-use considerations in biomedical research.

The Inside Story of How Trump’s COVID-19 Coordinator Undermined the World’s Top Health Agency

In July, a meeting of COVID-19 experts from across the US government received alarming news. White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx removed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s system for collecting hospital data in favor of a private contractor, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies Inc. Birx’s decision to pull the plug on the CDC’s data system was based on the agency’s inability to collect 100% of the hospital COVID-19 data every day, a practically impossible expectation. Birx’s demand would require that every hospital in the nation clean and update all of their COVID-related data on a daily basis while also providing medical care for COVID patients and non-COVID patients. The loss of control over COVID-19 hospital data is one among many factors contributing to the ongoing crisis at the CDC. Birx’s public comments lambasting the CDC have further undermined its work and expertise. Though she has received praise for being a “good scientist who gets things done,” she has also been criticized for railroading people, failing to listen to experts, and failing to recognize her own lack of a background in respiratory disease outbreaks. The abandoned CDC system, the National Healthcare Safety Network, used for the better part of 20 years was functional but imperfect; the TeleTracking system is operating with a greater lag, running 3-4 days behind. The CDC system showed 3-6% missing data for items such as COVID-19 inpatient bed occupancy and ventilator use; TeleTracking showed 36%-57% missing data.

As Coronavirus Surges, Select Subcommittee Releases White House Reports Contradicting President Trump on Testing, Masks

Reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force reveal that the administration has been aware for weeks that cases are mounting, spurring a need for mask mandates and increased testing. These revelations arise even as Trump openly downplayed the pandemic and held crowded events for his campaign. The reports validate that testing levels are too low to contain SARS-CoV-2 and it recommends that all 50 states increase testing, laboratory capacity, or testing surveillance activities. The Task Force calls on 11 states to dramatically increase testing at universities, 12 states to increase testing capacity, and encourages test results to be available with 48 hours. At present, report show that 31 states are in the “red zone” to instigate mask mandates.

The Big Ten is Making a Big Mistake

The first Big Ten football games are scheduled for this weekend, reversing the conference’s previous decision to postpone fall sports. Though states in this conference were seeing improvements in their case numbers, most have experienced surges of late. According to the Center for Health Security, all states except Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have reported new record high daily incidence since August. Yesterday, health officials in Washtenaw County, Michigan, home to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, issued a “stay in place” order to college students in response to increasing incidence among students and the university community. Several mayors are concerned that the Big Ten schools are not taking sufficient precautions against the virus and signed an open letter to the conference and universities urging them to heighten safeguards during football games. This weekend will show whether or not increased safety measures were implemented and reveal the impact of resuming football season in COVID-19.

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